The likes of Pret are killing the sandwich — the very thing that they were founded on.
It’s not the fact that the omnipresent lunch chains have reduced a key meal to a brief, functional pause; a cellophane wrapped, joyless punctuation of the day where we inhale fuel, chuck the packaging and carry on with the task list before the last bite is swallowed.
Well it is a bit.
Nor that the contents of the sandwiches they sell are so calculated and stylised — with all the good bits on the edges, whilst the inside, the guts and soul, is as empty as outer space.
Well, it is sort of that too.
No, it’s the way they’ve diversified into salads and pies and wraps and noodles and everything else in between.
The humble but heroic sandwich is tucked further and further away from the punters, who now, it seems, prefer a sushi box, hoisin duck wrap, pulled pork soup or half an avocado and a piece of lettuce (the avo suspiciously still green hours after being packed) to ham and mustard on white tin loaf. It’s a shameful shunning of our culinary heritage, a sleight to our forebears, and justification, if any was really needed, that it’s high time we left the bloody Europeans to multiculturalism and fancy condiments, whilst we return to the wonder years of corn beef on Chorleywood loaf, and egg mayo on Mighty White.*
* not really, I’m not a f*cking idiot.
But I do feel a bit sad about the current status of The Sandwich. Not only do millions of Brits leave home every day thinking they’ve not got enough time to sling a filling between two slices of decent bread, but masses of us now look for something else to eat “al desko” — because the gluten option isn’t half as glamorous as the other boxes and cartons on the shelves.
Don’t agree? Well, I had a look for Pret’s latest financial results to see whether year on year sales were broken down into ‘sandwich’ vs ‘other’ and … err, all I could find was that the croissant had overtaken the banana as its most popular item. Still, I’m sticking with my anecdotal belief that sandwich sales are down. And that that’s a problem.
Will future generations know the joys of a BLT, or prawn cocktail on wholemeal? Will they appreciate that cut tomatoes should always be shielded from direct contact with bread? Or that tuna mayo needs iceberg or sweetcorn or both, otherwise it’s death by boredom and brownness?
If there’s a chink of light, then perhaps it’s that the demise of the convenience sandwich would be the end of the imposter. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
A good sandwich, a real sandwich, is much more than the sum of its parts. The quality of bread is important — integral — and there must be a balance of textures in the filling, of savoury, sweet and sour too. There’s also an intangible but perceptible improvement when the constituent parts are assembled by someone who gives a shit. And it’s preferable that it’s made only moments before the eater takes their first chomp.
That last bit — the freshness element — is important. A sandwich made to order is a thing of near primordial pleasure. Yet of course unless you work from home, or near The Dusty Knuckle, that might rule you out of having one for lunch.
But, ah ha! Sandwiches are not just for lunch. They make a totally legit dinner — pizzas and burgers and steamed gua bao are merely inferior versions of our great British invention. And whilst not as ‘on trend’ as those other things, two of the best places to get your fill in this crowded city are shrines to the sandwich. It follows, of course, that you should go.
One — Monty’s Deli — is on Hoxton Street. Having previously hawked their salt beef and pastrami sandwiches at Maltby Street market, and then in an arch on the adjacent Druid Street, Marc Ogus and Owen Barratt now reside in an old, East-ish London bakery, which they’ve stripped back, buffed up and turned into a sleek US-style salt beef deli and bar. And its brilliant. There are sides of chopped liver, latkes and chips, and on Friday nights chicken and matzo dumpling soup and stuff, but really it’s about their superlative sandwiches — soft, fresh bread with a hint caraway piled high with unctuous, juicy salt beef and / or pastrami; which is at the same time sturdy, yet utterly fragile and surrenders to the mere suggestion of a canine, let alone a molar. In each of the menu variants there are sharp and crunchy slaws and a mayo or mustard to lubricate and bind the filling to the bread. For my money, the Meshuggener is king: a gargantuan sanger with a base of chopped liver and a mass of coleslaw on top. More classically, the Special Reuben, with melting Swiss cheese and sauerkraut this time, on lightly toasted bread. There are simpler, ‘lighter’ options, and things like Turkey with chrain (beetroot and horseradish), and fresh filled bagels to go too. But like I say, it’s hard to resist the Meshuggener. Nitpickers might raise an eyebrow to bread that doesn’t quite hold up to the task of surviving the filling (but given that is mountainous, could there be such a bread without the carb becoming dominant?). And on occasion it’s hard to discern whether the pastrami has enough bark to differentiate it from the salt beef. But those nitpickers would be joyless if they let those thoughts ruin the moment. A word for the gherkin served on the side, too — which is firm and crunchy, yet bursts into floods of sharp, briny liquid as you bite. Perfection.
The other is Max’s Sandwich Shop, whose original site in Crouch Hill has recently been supplemented by a second in Dalston’s ‘Birthdays‘. Max’s creations are things of wonder and wit — the kind of sandwich a seasoned gourmand dreams of when drunk, or hungover, or both. Here, the fillings all display that balance of soft, crunchy, and wet, then salty, sweet, sour/spicy, and the focaccia bread is as supportive as a Doric column. How to choose between Ham, Egg ‘n Chips (ham hock, shoestring fries, fried egg and malt vinegar mayo), The Bhaji Smuggler (carrot bhaji, Bombay mix, peanuts, herbs, pickles, spinach), and The Korean Gangster (soy braised beef, kimchi, deep fried noodles, ssamhang mayo and “incredibly slutty gravy”)??? TBH I couldn’t so had both the Ham and the Korean and rolled home dizzy. I’ve been reliably informed that the Bhaji is their equal. Damn, these are fine sandwiches; fitting whether as pre-amble, main focus or postscript to an evening.
Rather than rounding this off with a witticism linked to something in the intro, I’ll finish abruptly to curtail an already over enthusiastic word count. In any event, I suspect it’d more effective to just flash you some pictures of the Meshuggener and Reuben Special at Monty’s, and Max’s ham, egg and chips.
Aren’t they just the best things in sliced bread?
Monty’s Deli in 3 words
Salt beef stacks
Sandwiches are £8-£13. Stay for extras too, plus good beer and wine on tap — the room is a joy to sit in £15-£35 a head depending how you play it.
Max’s Sandwich Shop in 3 words
Modern British sarnies
£8.50 will sort you out for the sanger. There are a couple of little snacks and a dessert, too, plus craft beer to wash it down with. But still, £20 a head tops.
www.montys-deli.com — 227-229 Hoxton Street, N1 — 020 7729 5737
www.maxssandwichshop.com — 19 Crouch Hill, N4 4AP — 33-35 Stoke Newington Road, N16 8BJ